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UN Mission Halts Night Patrols on Part of Ethiopian-Eritrean Border

The U.N. mission stationed along the contested Eritrean-Ethiopian border has cut back on its night patrols in one sector, after being stopped by an Eritrean militia. War rhetoric about the border is heating up.

The spokeswoman for the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Gail Bindley Taylor-Sainte, tells VOA, there was an incident recently, in which a local Eritrean militia stopped a night patrol in a sector within the 25-kilometer-wide buffer zone between the two countries.

As a result, she says, night patrols have been suspended in that particular area.

Ms. Bindley Taylor-Sainte says this is a worrying development, because the Eritrean government recently banned flights over the buffer zone of the 1,000-kilometer border, which makes it difficult for the U.N. mission to monitor the non-militarized zone, as outlined under a previous agreement.

"We are now very dependent on our foot and vehicle patrols," she said. "Otherwise it would not be an issue. In fact, because of the helicopters at the moment not operating, we are dependent on foot patrols and vehicle patrols, so that, if they're stopped, it becomes an issue."

Ethiopia and Eritrea waged a bitter war over their border from 1998 to 2000, during which some 70,000 people were killed.

Under a peace agreement signed in 2000, the independent Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission was created to mark the 1,000-kilometer border. About 4,000 U.N. peacekeepers were dispatched to ensure the stability of the border.

Ethiopia subsequently rejected the boundary commission's ruling that an area called Badme belongs to Eritrea, effectively stopping a demarcation exercise, and keeping the determination of the border in limbo.

Ms. Bindley Taylor-Sainte says that, as a result of last week's ban on U.N. helicopters flying reconnaissance missions over the buffer zone by Eritrea, the mission's ability to monitor the zone has been cut back by about half.

She says from what the mission is able to observe, there appear to be no violations of the buffer zone. But, she says, the mission cannot completely rule out the possibility of a military build-up along the contested border.

"We are watching the situation to see if restrictions occur," she said. "Restrictions have occurred on a regular basis in certain areas. That is a fact. So, what we are looking at now is to see whether restrictions are increasing, because then that would sound an alarm for us."

The mission says the Eritrean government has given no reason for the helicopter ban.

The mission has also suspended demining operations in the area because of the helicopter ban, which prevents quick evacuation of those who may be injured during demining.

VOA was unable to reach the Eritrean government spokesman for comment.

Eritrea recently warned the United Nations that war between the two countries might be rekindled, if the border dispute is not resolved soon.

The U.N. Security Council has called on Eritrea to immediately lift the helicopter ban.